The history of Birkenhead Priory

Birkenhead Priory is the oldest standing building in Merseyside, built on what was once a wooded area of the north-eastern side of the Wirral peninsula.

The founding of Birkenhead Priory

The Priory was thought to have been founded in 1150 by Hamon de Massey, the third Baron of Dunham for the Benedictine monks, though there is no documentary evidence to prove that 1150 was the exact date of the Priory’s founding. The Massey family were based in Dunham Massey near Altrincham and owned extensive land in Cheshire, including the Wirral.

Wealthy 12th-Century nobles built monasteries because they believed that this would guarantee them a place in heaven. They also made sure that the monks regularly prayed for their souls. A document from 1278 explained that a rich person’s reason for founding monasteries was:

“…for the salvation of my soul, and of the souls of my ancestors…and for the repose of the souls of myself and of all my descendants”

The original monks that occupied Birkenhead Priory may have been from a Benedictine order based in Chester, although other historians believe that they came from St. Werburghs.

The only surviving structure from the 12th Century is the two-bayed chapter house, although there are the remains of a 13th-Century church and the west claustral. Visitors to the Priory can also see some of the many additions made to the it during the 14th century,

The first ferry across the Mersey

At the time of the founding of the Priory, Birkenhead was a small village on the narrowest part of the River Mersey, which would have enabled travellers to cross the Mersey in small boats. The Benedictine order had a tradition of looking after travellers by providing them with food and shelter.

The Benedictine monks often managed roads, fords and bridges, so it was not surprising that they wanted to run a ferry service.

Edward II in the 14th Century granted the monks of Birkenhead Priory permission to operate the first official ferry across the River Mersey. They were also given permission by the king to erect a building on what is now Water Street, to shelter travellers and serve them food. The priory had previously fed and sheltered travelers for free but could now charge for their services, as well as receiving ferry fees.

The charter given to the monks said that they:

“…may erect sufficient Houses on their own proper ground at Birkened, in the place of the passage aforesaid, or as near as can conveniently be done for entertainment of such men and hold the same to them and their successors for ever. And that the men about to dwell in these Houses may buy and sell victuals for the sustenance of the men about to pass over the said Arm of the Sea…”

The ferry tolls provided a good income for the Priory. In 1357, ferry charges were ¼d for passengers on market days, and ½d on nonmarket days. A man and his fully laden horse were charged 2d, but 1d if the horse did not carry a load.

Slow pace

There were not a lot of monks housed at the Priory – around 16. There is little documentation about the history of the Priory, which probably means that not a lot happened there. It was quietly run by the monks without any major problems, as they farmed and fished to feed themselves and sold their excess produce at local markets.

In 1536, Henry VIII passed an act that dissolved all small monasteries, followed by another act in 1539 to close the larger ones. The Prior of Birkenhead at the time did not resist closure and gave up control of Birkenhead Priory in return for an income of £12 a year.

In private hands

In 1545, Ralph Worsley bought the priory and the ferry boat. The priory was run as a private estate until the 19th Century. Some of the buildings were probably converted to domestic use and the chapter house became a private chapel for the Lord of the Manor.

After Ralph Worsley died in 1572, the priory passed to his heirs who eventually sold it to John Cleivland in 1713. He died three years later and the estate was passed to his daughter Alice and her husband Frances Price. The Birkenhead Priory was owned by their family until the 19th Century.

The church

By the early 19th Century, Birkenhead had grown in size and needed a parish church. Work on building St Mary’s church on the Priory site began in 1819 and the first service was held in 1822. The church construction was funded by the Price family.

In 1820, a hotel was built so that travellers arriving by coach could rest before crossing the Mersey. The hotel and parts of St Mary’s church graveyard are now covered by the Cammell Laird shipyard.

Restoration

The priory buildings were neglected and became derelict during the 19th Century. In 1913, restoration work began on the priory buildings. Six years later, the chapter house and scriptorium were restored.

During the second world war an incendiary device intended for the Cammell Laird shipyard damaged the restored buildings and more restoration work was carried out.

In 1971, St Mary’s church closed and most of it was demolished, though the spire was preserved and remains standing.

The priory was designated an ancient monument in 1979 and extensive restoration work was carried in 1988. A museum was opened and the refectory rebuilt.

The restored Chapter House is now owned by the Church of England, which holds regular services there. The Scriptorium is the home of the Friends of HMS Conway – a training ship.

Birkenhead Priory remains a quiet oasis in Birkenhead, surrounded by housing developments, industry and next door to the large Cammell Laird shipyard. It forms part of the rich history of Birkenhead and has seen the town grow from a small village to today’s large thriving town – the largest on the Wirral and with strong links to Liverpool.

Posted by Mark
May 18, 2017
Features

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